Interview with Mr. James May – the man that introduced stevia to the US market
Cristian: It’s funny how we always take things for granted. I once saw at my mother’s home a can of
“stevia sugar” that she mentioned it’s the all natural sweetener for diabetics and calorie free and
found out it’s easy to get at the supermarket. I remember telling myself that I should get and buy
some to see how this works. I never knew there is a great entrepreneurial story behind finding stevia
sweeteners on the shelves – that’s why I’m very happy to have Mr. James May – the man that
introduced stevia to the US market for an interview. Mr. May, first, what are the stevia sweeteners?
Mr. May: First, may I say that Gilbert, Arizona-based Wisdom Natural Brands® is the parent company of two
highly respected and award-winning consumer brands: SweetLeaf Stevia® Sweetener and Wisdom
of the Ancients® herbal teas, which contain natural leaves from the stevia plant.
Stevia is the most incredible sweetener to ever be introduced into the world market.
SweetLeaf® is the natural stevia sweetener with zero calories, zero carbohydrates, non-glycemic
response, and NO artificial ingredients. It is the only stevia brand to be named a Top Wellness
Company and to consistently win numerous global awards for taste and innovation, SweetLeaf is
available in boxes containing 35 or 70 packets with each packet replacing two teaspoons of sugar.
SweetLeaf Stevia® can also be purchased in Shaker bottles for easy home use and SweetLeaf
SteviaTabs™ Dissolvable Tablets for on-the-go use. Each tablet replaces one teaspoon of sugar.
SugarLeaf™, also by Wisdom, bonds SweetLeaf Stevia® directly to a cane sugar granule for a low-
calorie sugar alternative that is perfect for baking and cooking. When a recipe calls for a cup of
sugar, only 1/3 cup of SugarLeaf is required. Therefore, SugarLeaf has 2/3 fewer calories than
sugar but provides the sweet taste and the mouthfeel of a full cup of sugar. SweetLeaf® Liquid
Stevia Sweet Drops™ add delicious flavor without calories or carbohydrates to favorite foods and
beverages. Sweet Drops™, like all SweetLeaf Sweetener® products, have NO artificial ingredients.
SweetLeaf® Water Drops™ add delicious natural flavor to still or sparkling water. When added to
sparkling water, they offer the mouthfeel and taste sensation of a soda of the same flavor.
Cristian: What are the benefits of using stevia sweeteners over regular sugar or aspartame?
Mr. May: Stevia comes directly from the leaves of the stevia plant. The intensely sweet glycosides are
extracted with water, and we do not permit any chemicals or harsh alcohols to touch our
SweetLeaf® products. As previously stated, SweetLeaf products have zero calories, zero carbs,
and non-glycemic response. Therefore, SweetLeaf sweeteners are not converted into fat in the
human body and will not raise blood sugar, no matter how much is ingested. SweetLeaf is also
proud to say that our products have zero artificial ingredients and zero sugar alcohols such as
erythritol. SweetLeaf also has zero methanol, zero aspartame, zero sucralose, zero maltodextrin
and zero dextrose. SweetLeaf is the only stevia brand consistently winning global awards for taste
and innovation. To date, we have received 14 international taste awards. There is no other stevia
in the world market that can match the delightfully delicious taste of SweetLeaf. Stevia is the only
sweetener on earth that, according to scientific research, generates better health in the human
Cristian: Being a zero calorie sweetener is it safe for diabetics?
Mr. May: Yes, SweetLeaf Stevia® Sweetener is safe for people with diabetes. SweetLeaf Stevia Sweetener
causes non-glycemic response, and as a result, does not spike blood sugar. However, we advise
everyone with any medical questions or specific health conditions to check with a healthcare
professional for specific medical recommendations.
Cristian: Can it be used at home or in industrial processes? How different is to use than regular
Mr. May: Stevia is a plant that was discovered more than 1,500 years ago in the rain forests of Paraguay. At
maturity, the stevia shrub grows to about three feet tall. Stevia leaves are 30 times sweeter than
sugar. And—yes, several of our SweetLeaf Stevia products are prepared for and marketed to food
and beverage companies for use as an ingredient in their products. Currently, SweetLeaf Stevia is
used as a sweetener in candies, chocolate milk, salad dressings, beverages, nutritional bars,
baked goods, ice cream, frozen yogurt and other products. The potential is without limit.
SweetLeaf can also be used at home or as an ingredient but most often, it becomes the tabletop
sweetener of choice used as if it were sugar. But stevia is not sugar; it is a very unique plant. It is
the only sweetener on Earth that generates better health in the human body. It is estimated that
there are over 1,500 published scientific studies documenting the safety and health benefits of
Cristian: Are there any specific recipes? Can it be used for let’s say homemade cookies?
Mr. May: Yes, we have just launched a cookbook called Cooking with SweetLeaf Stevia®. Our 119-recipe
cookbook can be purchased at: http://www.shopsweetleaf.com/stevia-cookbook.
Cristian: Is it safe for small children? And how beneficial is it for them being a 0 calorie sweetener?
Mr. May: We advise everyone with any medical questions or serious health conditions to check with a
healthcare professional for specific medical recommendations. Children today eat far too many
sweets made with various forms of sugars, and they do not get sufficient exercise to burn off the
glucose calories, which are then stored as fat. SweetLeaf Stevia allows them to enjoy sweets
without the calories and resultant gain in body fat. However, Dr. Jan Geuns, one of the world’s
foremost stevia scientists, former director of the Laboratory of Functional Biology in Leuven,
Belgium, and head of the scientifically oriented European Stevia Association (EUSTAS) wrote in
2004 that, “Stevia and stevioside have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people during a
very long period of time, both by adults and by children without giving the smallest indication of any
harmful effect.” By 2012, he had written, “The Steviol glycosides have been extensively
investigated in toxicological studies and there are no toxic effects known, based on scientific
data…Steviol glycosides are an ideal sweetener for children and do not have an addictive effect
like sugar.” During his presentation at the 7th Annual International Stevia Symposium, held in
Asunción, Paraguay, April 9, 2014, where he and I were both speakers, Dr. Geuns stated that
stevia is now consumed daily by 165 million people, either as stevia leaves, whole leaf products or
Cristian: But everything we buy and eat today from the food industry has tons of sugar and
preservatives. Is it realistic to think we could have an artificial sugar free life and use stevia? I’m
afraid you can’t really get away from the sugar in the processed food!
Mr. May: At this point in time you are probably correct. However, as more consumers demand less sugar,
the food and beverage manufacturers will eventually come into line with what the consumers want.
Currently, SweetLeaf is a solution for a better-for-you lifestyle. SweetLeaf is the only stevia brand
in the world that is consistently winning global awards for taste and innovation. For people who
want the taste and mouthfeel of sugar but significantly fewer calories, we have created SugarLeaf.
We have bonded the intensely sweet stevia glycosides directly to the sugar granule so the
consumer gets the taste and mouthfeel of sugar but the sweetness of stevia. If a recipe calls for
one cup of sugar, then only 1/3 cup of SugarLeaf is needed. This results in 2/3 fewer calories than
Cristian: But how do you actually get sugar out of the stevia leaves? And is it different from
processing regular sugar?
Mr. May: SweetLeaf Stevia® is not sugar. Stevia leaves contain more than 40 sweet glycosides as well as
about 100 vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and other nutrients. They are extracted from the leaves
with water but then must be separated and the desired glycosides gathered together, forming what
is known as stevia leaf extract. Depending on which glycosides are used in the final product, it can
be between 200 and 300 times sweeter than sugar. The extract must then be blended with a
carrier in order to create a palatable tabletop sweetener. While most stevia companies use another
form of sugar such as erythritol, maltodextrin or other sugar alcohols, SweetLeaf uses inulin, which
is a natural soluble fiber that is also a primary food supply for the good intestinal bacteria, thus
producing a very good-for-you sweetener.
Cristian: Probably at this point people are wondering where can stevia sweeteners be found? I’m
almost afraid it’s going to be hard to get!
Mr. May: SweetLeaf® products are sold in thousands of USA grocery and natural food stores including Whole Food
Stores, Sprouts and Kroger stores nationwide. Unfortunately, none of these stores carry all of the incredibly
delicious SweetLeaf products. However, we sell all of our products online at ShopSweetLeaf.com. We are
also sold in more than 30 countries!
Cristian: It sounds almost too good to be true. So how come we don’t use stevia instead of the other
Mr. May: That is a great question. It is a matter of education. More and more people today are looking for a solution to
high sugars and artificial ingredients in their foods, and not only are they learning about the harmful effects
of sugars and artificial sweeteners within the human body, they are being educated concerning the health
benefits of stevia. Consumers are learning that SweetLeaf Stevia is a solution to a better-for-you lifestyle.
Cristian: Your work to bring stevia to US dates back from the ’80s. How did it all start?
Mr. May: In the beginning, I learned about the health and healing benefits of stevia directly from the
descendants of the ancient Guarani natives who had discovered and used stevia for its
sweetening and healing benefits for more than 1,500 years. Having tasted stevia leaves brought
from Paraguay by a returning Peace Corps worker and reading studies by Japanese scientists, I
went to Paraguay to learn more about stevia. I gave stevia leaves to friends and anyone willing to
try them. Everyone wanted more leaves. I returned to Paraguay and set up a company to harvest
rainforest herbs and prepare them for the U.S. market. Stevia leaves were added to sweeten and
enhance the flavor of the healing herbs as well as the leaves for stevia tea and as a liquid
concentrate, made by cooking the leaves in pure water. People using the teas would call me,
write letters and often come to see me to say thank you.
The FDA was aware that stevia had been determined safe by the Japanese Ministry of Health in
1975 and approved it as a sweetener and food additive. By 1982, stevia had a 40% market share
as a commercial sweetener in Japan.
In those days no one in the U.S. had ever heard of stevia, so I was trying to introduce a new
product that no consumer was familiar with. In 1985, G.D. Searle, the drug company that
originally developed aspartame as a prescription only drug for peptic ulcers and had just gotten it
allowed as an artificial sweetener, learned that I was marketing Paraguayan stevia. They
persuaded the FDA to stop the small “Arizona Company” from importing and marketing stevia in
the United States. In 1993, I met with several Senators and Congressmen in Washington and by
showing them the published scientific studies convinced them that what the FDA was doing was a
restraint of trade and had nothing to do with the safety of stevia.
The next year, 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act
(DSHEA) allowing various herbs to be marketed to consumers. Stevia was added to the list in
1995. However, the FDA issued a written notice that when marketing stevia as a dietary
supplement, the word sweet could not be used to describe stevia, nor could the public be
informed that stevia would enhance the flavor of food or beverage. If this information appeared on
the label or in any advertisement, the FDA would consider the product “adulterated” and remove it
from store shelves. That is when I came up with the name SweetLeaf® as a brand name for our
stevia products. It was not describing the taste of stevia. It was merely a brand name, thus, totally
within the restrictions.
The final great obstacle was in 2007 when Cargill announced that they would have a single stevia
glycoside declared GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) and that they would be the first to
achieve the designation.
I knew that I had to act fast and with boldness. I contracted with an independent firm of former
FDA GRAS scientists to perform the required studies and determine if SweetLeaf Stevia, a blend
of the most desirable glycosides, was GRAS. After nearly a year of research, the scientists
determined that SweetLeaf was GRAS. I was notified of their determination on March 5, 2008. I
then contracted with a second independent firm of scientists to perform the same research. They
agreed, and in June of 2008, I went to New York City and made the announcement through
numerous TV and radio media that SweetLeaf Stevia was now a legal sweetener and would be
marketed as a tabletop sweetener and as an ingredient for all food and beverages.
By 2012, numerous companies had achieved GRAS status for their stevia and the competition
became fierce. However, SweetLeaf Stevia is the only brand of stevia consistently winning
numerous international awards for taste and innovation. The fact is, SweetLeaf Stevia tastes
better than all the rest.
Cristian: I have to say it’s a long time for any undertaking. What kept you motivated all these years?
Mr. May: I have always been motivated by a greater good. As a child, I was taught by my parents to be good and to
do good at all times and in all ways! I came to know that stevia is a wonderful, healthier way to add a sweet
taste to food and beverages without any of the harmful effects of artificial ingredients or sugar. It was just
the right thing to do. It was doing good for my fellow man. And SweetLeaf Stevia is making the world a
sweeter place, naturally!
Cristian: Looking back to the journey, would you do it again? And what would you do differently?
Mr. May: Absolutely! I do not know that I could have done anything differently. Those early years were extremely
difficult and caused very hard times for my wife and five children. During the first three years, I received zero
income. The fourth year, I was finally able to take $16,000 out of the company. We had to sell everything we
had gained over the previous 20 years except one car and the house in which we lived. Previous to this
enterprise, I had been acclaimed as the foremost expert in America in my field. Then I went to being called
an ignorant, herbal quack. As stevia and my other herbal products began to gain acceptance by consumers,
the drug industry, through the FDA, did everything possible to put me out of business and keep stevia away
from the American consumer. But, as a child, my mother taught me that if I was right in what I was doing, to
never, ever, give up. Every time I was knocked down, I was to get up and go forward. Anything worth doing
would be difficult. I followed the counsel of my parents. Also, I saw the good stevia and the other herbs were
doing for the people who were using them.
Cristian: Any words of wisdom for young entrepreneurs that are afraid of starting something
because “it’s impossible”?
Mr. May: Nothing in this life worth achieving is easy, nor is it impossible. There will always be obstacles but there is
always a way to accomplish the objective if it is right and for the benefit of mankind. I would simply repeat
what I said above. If what you are doing is right and for the good of your fellow man, then never give up!
Always go forward. Be honest, and be honorable in all you do. There is a way. It will take hard work, long
hours, and perhaps years of effort, sacrificing everything else but your family. Never sacrifice your family.
They are the most important thing in life. Nothing is impossible!